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Is Epigenetics a Simple ON or OFF of our Genes?

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Epigenetic mechanisms

Epigenetic mechanisms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The answer is no! Epigenetics is more like a volume control that can turn a gene off, on partially, on more and full on. Music is similar. We play music as notes being On or OFF but each note that is ON is ON with a volume. Thus music is much more than the simple make up of the notes. It is a composition of each note, their relative volume and duration. Our genetics is being “played” by our epigenetics. The resulting music is unique! We are unique creatures surviving in a given environment.

Our Environment can allow Tumors to grow or fight them

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Granular cell tumor

Granular cell tumor (Photo credit: Pulmonary Pathology)

Pharmaceutical Intelligence says if DNA is our alphabet, epigenetics is our spelling, language and grammar. Dr. Esteller, who did this study, has been crucial to show that all human tumors have in common a specific chemical alteration: the hypermethylation of tumor suppressor genes. Remember methylation causes genes to be silenced (turned off). Turning off tumor suppressor genes disables our bodies abilities to fight tumors.

What are your DNA Volume Settings?

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The human genome, categorized by function of e...

The human genome, categorized by function of each gene product, given both as number of genes and as percentage of all genes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epigenetics is not just the turning ON and OFF of genes but also how much they are turned ON/OFF. This is similar to a stereo were we can turn it ON and OFF but we can also adjust the volume. The volume of methylation in our genes is significant and a new area of study. It is not so simple. “An epigenetics BLOG, says “Experiments with agouti mice have shown that feeding methyl-supplements to pregnant mothers can affect the volume settings of genes in their offspring.” What was eaten during pregnancy can have a profound influence on your babies health just like smoking and drinking does.

Too Much or too Little of something can be Bad!

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This image shows a DNA molecule that is methyl...

This image shows a DNA molecule that is methylated on both strands on the center cytosine. DNA methylation plays an important role for epigenetic gene regulation in development and cancer. The picture shows the crystal structure of a short DNA helix with sequence "accgcCGgcgcc", which is methylated on both strands at the center cytosine. The structure was taken from the Protein Data Bank (accession number 329D), rendering was performed with VMD and post-processing was done in Photoshop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first human disease linked to epigenetics was cancer in 1863 says Scitable a collaborative learning space for science. The study found: “Researchers found that diseased tissue from patients with colorectal cancer had less DNA methylation than normal tissue from the same patients (Feinberg & Vogelstein, 1983). Because methylated genes are typically turned off, loss of DNA methylation can cause abnormally high gene activation by altering the arrangement of chromatin. On the other hand, too much methylation can undo the work of protective tumor suppressor genes.” So once again we see that too little of something or too much of it can be bad. Finding the right balance is what health is all about.

What is Epigenetics Anyway?

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Epigenetics

Epigenetics (Photo credit: AJC1)

I looked up the definition in Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. It has been a while since I looked at the actual definition and wanted to see if it has changed as we know more about the science. There definition was:
“The study of the chemical modification of specific genes or gene-associated proteins of an organism. Epigenetic modifications define how genetic information is read and used by cells. Epigenetic modifications can be inherited and are influenced by environmental factors, some of which can induce epigenetic signaling that may contribute to biological processes such as aging. Methylation is the principal epigenetic modification of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and of proteins called histones that package DNA into chromatin inside a cell. Epigenetic modifications influence gene expression and enable the differentiation of pluripotent stem cells (cells with the potential to become any of many different kinds of cells) into distinct cell types early in embryological development. The ability to control and alter stem cell differentiation through the manipulation of epigenetic modifications has profound implications for the treatment of conditions such as neurodegenerative disease.”

How Does Our Environment Program US?

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Epigenetics

Image by AJC1 via Flickr

SCITABLE by Nature Education says the first disease to be linked to epigenetics was cancer. It was found that loss of DNA methylation (Switches genes ON) allowed cancer genes to activate and do their thing. Adding methylation was not the answer because it did stop the cancer genes from running but also turned OFF the Tumor Suppressor Genes. We must look at epigenetics as a programming language. The answers are easy. No simple generic solution will work. We must understand which epigenetic triggers turn ON or OFF which genes and in combination with what other genes. The language will be a lot more complex than the genome project was! Just as software programming is much more complex than the simple instructions in a computer’s hardware. These instructions can be viewed as human genes and the software can be viewed as the epigenetic programming. We are a creature made up of trillions of cells that are alive and communicate with each other to form a network that makes us human. We live in an environment that influences this society of cells. The resulting changes from these influences can end up being good or bad to the human entity. My new book, Food for Thought – An Epigenetic Guide to Wellness discusses this in more depth.